Tales from the Trail

The First Draft: Details

OBAMA/The devil’s in the details, the saying goes, and we’ll find out plenty of details today about two big initiatives of the Obama administration: the budget and the bank bailout.

At 10:35 a.m., Obama will propose slashing $17 billion from the U.S. budget in 121 programs ranging from weapons systems to mine cleanup. Republicans are likely to say that’s not enough to tame his $3.55 trillion budget.

At 5 p.m., the Treasury Department will reveal the results of its “stress tests” of major banks, and is expected to say that about half of the 19 largest banks will need to raise more money to stay financially should.

Aside from that, there’s plenty of other things happening in Washington today.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in town; he holds a news conference with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at 1 p.m. and meets with Obama at 4:15.

First draft: No driving with the king this time

The last time Barack Obama saw Jordan’s King Abudullah, the monarch literally gave him a PORTUGAL/ride to the airport in Amman. That was before Obama was elected president, and the king shouldn’t expect a return of the favor during his visit to Washington today.

But Abdullah — the first Arab leader to hold face-to-face talks in the White House since Obama took office – has been invited to Obama’s personal dining room for a one-on-one meeting with the American president before a more formal gathering with aides in the Oval Office.

Abdullah is expected to lobby on behalf of Arab states for a stronger U.S. role in Middle East peacemaking, according to Jordanian palace officials.

First draft: Ghost town

OBAMA/It’s Friday morning. Do you know where your leaders are?

They’re certainly not in Washington. President Obama leaves Mexico City for Trinidad and Tobago, where he will participate in the Summit of the Americas.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the Dominican Republic, on her way to the summit as well.

Vice President Joe Biden is in Missouri to discuss making college more affordable.

First draft: Paybacks

USA/Things are looking up on Wall Street. What will Washington have to say?

Goldman Sachs, coming off a strong earnings report, may try to pay back its $5 billion government loan early, so it can get out from under mandated salary caps. This move could reduce the cost of the financial bailout but also rekindle public anger about Wall Street greed. Look for a response from the Obama administration today.

Outside of Wall Street, the real economy continues to crumble. Retail sales unexpectedly fell in March as motor vehicle and electronic purchases declined, and prices paid to farmers and manufacturers posted their strongest yearly decline since 1950 as energy prices slipped, according to government figures released early Tuesday.

Obama speaks about the economy at Georgetown University at 11:30.

Congress is out of town this week, but that won’t stop a prominent congressional watchdog from releasing its report on wasteful spending.   Citizens Against Government Waste unveils its annual “pig book” at 10:00.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Defending women’s rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Barely had President Barack Obama outlined a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan meant to narrow the focus to eliminating the threat from al Qaeda and its Islamist allies, before the U.S.-led campaign ran into what was always going to be one of its biggest problems in limiting its goals. What does it do about the rights of women in the region?

The treatment of women has dominated the headlines this week after Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a new law for the minority Shi'ite population which both the United States and the United Nations said could undermine women's rights. Karzai has promised a review of the law, while also complaining it was misinterpreted by Western journalists. 

In Pakistan, video footage has been circulated of Taliban militants flogging a teenage girl in the Swat valley, where the government concluded a peace deal with the Taliban in February. The graphic and disturbing video, which has been posted on YouTube, has outraged many Pakistanis and the flogging was condemned by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani as shameful. There have been contradictory reports of exactly when and why the girl was punished, although Dawn newspaper quoted a witness as saying she was flogged two weeks ago for refusing a marriage proposal.

from Commodity Corner:

If only trade talks went this quick…

KirkCall it the Congressional version of the lightning round.

Ron Kirk, the Obama administration's choice for U.S. Trade Representative, had a rapid-fire confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Monday that lasted no longer than 45 minutes.

"Exhilarating," was how Kirk, a former Dallas mayor, described the quick experience, fittingly, in one word.

Senators had to compress the session to attend a vote on amendments to the omnibus spending bill.

The First Draft: urgent care

President Obama takes on healthcare reform at a 1:00 p.m. White House forum today, hoping to design an overhaul of a costly and inefficient system he believes is threatening the economy. About 120 participants from industry and government will gather to discuss potential fixes to the $2.5 trillion system. JAPAN

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Brussels, said it was time for NATO to make a new start with Russia after formal ties were suspended when Moscow sent troops into Georgia last summer.

The House is expected to approve a bill that would allow bankruptcy judges to slash mortgage payments for homeowners as a last resort.

The First Draft: chilly winds and hot air

There’s a cold wind blowing in Washington on Tuesday morning, one day after a late-winter storm dumped up to a foot of snow on the region. DC residents anticipate a thaw when our national leaders provide their daily dose of hot air. WEATHER-USA/SNOW

President Obama meets U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the White House at 11:30. They are expected to discuss their efforts to revive the global economy.

After that, Obama meets with Boy Scouts at 3 p.m.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies to Congress about the economy starting at 10:00, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner testifies about Obama’s budget proposal at 12:30. Markets are continuing to swoon after yesterday’s plunge; will their testimony spark a rally?

The First Draft: another day, another $30 billion

It’s not yet 9:00 on a Monday morning, and the federal government has already dumped another $30 billion into the tottering financial system. The money goes to insurer American International Group Inc., which just announced a fourth-quarter loss of $61.7 billion — the largest quarterly loss in corporate history. WEATHER/

For those keeping score at home, U.S. taxpayers have now pumped $180 billion into AIG.

Some good news: consumer spending and incomes rose in January, buoyed by salary increases for government employees.

The First Draft: Drawdown in Iraq

President Obama makes no small plans. One day after announcing the biggest budget deficit since World War Two, Obama flies to a Marine base in North Carolina to announce a withdrawal timetable for troops in Iraq. IRAQ/

Obama envisions an end to combat operations by August 2010, though a force of around 50,000 will remain. That’s too many for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Democrat, but former Republican presidential rival John McCain thinks it’s about right.

The Iraq news should provide a welcome change of focus from the economy, which continues to be terrible. Government data showed the U.S. economy contracted more sharply than estimated in the fourth quarter, with gross domestic product falling at an annual rate of 6.2 percent. The Treasury Department has said it will convert its $25 billion stake in Citigroup to regular shares, giving it 36 percent ownership of the troubled banking giant. Citi’s shares are down 19 percent in premarket trading.